Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book III

Cicero begins this final book with a preface that tells his brother Quintus that Crassus spoke many “divinely inspired words” and was a “divinely gifted man” (225). He spoke like a swan, and swans were believed to sing more beautifully when they were about to die. In a footnote to this passage, James May and Jakob Wisse write that “Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo (84-85) interprets [the likeness of a speaker to a swan] as a sign of prophetic powers” (225n5).

Then the story continues. Most of the interlocutors rested during the noon hour, but Crassus spent it in intense reading. When it is time for him to speak, he begins by saying that style and content cannot be separated: “I have the impression that those great men of the past, having grasped in their minds something of a higher order, have thereby seen much more than our mind’s eye, today, is able to contemplate: they said that all the universe above and below us is a unity and is bound together by a single, natural force and harmony” (230). So there ought to be agreement and harmony between all disciplines, and true eloquence forms that unity. Speech is like a river that branches into many smaller streams but still comes from the same source. Since things aren’t separated as we sometimes think they are, a person’s words cannot be separated from that person’s thoughts. Hence, “discovering words for a distinguished style is impossible without having produced and shaped the thoughts,” and “no thought can shine clearly without the enlightening power of words” (231).

Each speaker, however, has a distinct style, and all are talented in their own way. So it is the responsibility of teachers to see which students have which talents and to adapt instruction in such a way as to maximize the learning and potential of all students. One must speak with clarity, distinction, and in a way that is both suitable and appropriate to the situation. Orators should learn to control breathing, their tongue, and the sound of their voice. Orators should also use common words and avoid both ambiguity and overly long periodic sentences. No one admires an orator for speaking correct Latin, but they do make fun of one that doesn’t, so speaking correctly is necessary. One may refine grammar and diction by reading other orators and poets.

And then there’s this key passage which I will quote in full:
“For the true orator ought to have examined and heard and read and discussed and thoroughly treated all aspects of human life, since it is with them that the orator is engaged, and it is this that constitutes his material. Eloquence, after all, has its own place among the supreme virtues. Of course, all the virtues are equal and equivalent, but still, one is more beautiful and splendid in appearance than another. This is the case with the power that I am talking about: having acquired all-embracing knowledge, it unfolds the thoughts and counsels of the mind in words, in such a way that it can drive the audience in whatever direction it has applied its weight. And the greater this power is, the more necessary it is to join it to integrity and the highest measure of good sense. For if we put the full resources of speech at the disposal of those who lack these virtues, we will certainly not make orators of them, but will put weapons into the hands of madmen” (239).
The ancients, Crassus continues, didn’t separate speech and act: “For the old form of learning seems to have taught both right actions and good speech. Nor were the teachers separated from each other, but the same people gave instructions for living and for speaking” (240). Disciplines became separated when people began to notice that they could prosper if they would specialize. A rupture between the tongue and the heart is also harmful. The best philosophers also said that “eloquence is a virtue and a form of wisdom” (244), and “used to link the principles of oratory with the entire study and knowledge of everything that was relevant to human conduct, to human life, to virtue, and to the state” (246). These ancients meant for there to be “communion between speaking and understanding” (247).

Hence, true eloquence includes everything: “The real power of eloquence is so enormous that its scope includes the origin, essence, and transformations of everything: virtues, moral duties, and all the laws of nature that govern human conduct, characters, and life. It establishes traditions, laws, and legal arrangements, governs the State, and addresses with distinction and copiousness all questions belonging to any area whatsoever” (248). An orator is an actor. Sure, this is a lofty ideal, but we’re examining the ideal orator, and we do the same thing when we theoretically examine any other art or skill—we try to see it in its best, most ideal, and fullest form possible.

Crassus then discusses style. He says that sweetness and poetic diction in speech can sometimes be effective, but we can’t stand to eat sweet food all day, so moderation is best. The best speeches shift back and forth from the specific to the general because the specific addresses particular concerns, but the general principles enable audience members to apply things in multiple contexts. To become better orators, we must put good things into our minds—the best things, actually. And since all subjects are connected with one another, any good we can gain will help us become effective speakers. The same is true with virtue and the virtues. Plato was a teacher of speech, of the mind, and of virtue.

Crassus goes on to say that metaphors are useful because the mind’s eye is drawn more easily to things we have seen than to things we have only heard. He discusses tropes and figures, juxtaposition, rhythm, and periodic structure. Good rhythm is pleasing to an audience. Crassus mentions figures of thought and figures of speech and their usage, but the underlying rule is that, no matter what, “In every area, the capacity to do what is appropriate is a matter of art and natural ability, but to know what is appropriate at each time is a matter of intelligence” (290).

Finally, Crassus discusses delivery, what he calls the dominant factor in oratory. Orators are actors because they must use their voice, gestures, facial expressions, and eyes effectively. Delivery is “wholly a matter of the soul, and the face is an image of the soul, while the eyes reflect it” (294). In fact, everything is dominated by the eyes. Put another way, “Delivery is, so to speak, the language of the body, which makes it all the more essential that it should correspond to what we intend to say” (294). Delivery is so important and influential because human beings want to see a speech performed. The most useful is the most appropriate.

Crassus concludes by saying that his speech isn’t perfect, but it’s the best he could do. Catulus thinks it was awesome, though, and the group decides to rest their minds after the long discussion.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“CiceroBust”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book II

Cicero begins Book 2 by telling his brother Quintus that “anyone who has ever achieved success and pre-eminence in eloquence can only have done so by relying on the whole of wisdom, not just on rhetorical rules” (126). In other words, eloquence isn’t about following a set of pre-prescribed rules, but about seeking and coming to know wisdom. That is, to some degree, why Isocrates was the father of eloquence. Then Cicero continues the story he told in Book 1.

The Conversation Continued
Catulus and Caesar join the previous day’s group, and all decide to continue the earlier discussion. Antonius begins by extolling eloquence, saying that the orator can speak well on any topic that belongs to the other arts. When he is finished, Catulus and Crassus act surprised, because what he says today seems to conflict with what he said yesterday, but Antonius explains his change of attitude: yesterday he was trying to refute Crassus, but today he’s trying to express his own opinions. Antonius then divides oratory and discusses judicial and deliberative oratory, historiography, and general, philosophical questions. The books we read, he says, influence our speech patterns. And when we learn the harder things, the easier things follow naturally. Catulus says that the hardest things to talk about are the gods, but Antonius disagrees.

[To some degree, it seems to me as if Antonius is sort of restating parts of Crassus’ speech of the previous day, or at least agreeing with parts of it.]

Antonius then discusses talent, natural abilities, and training. The orator should be a good man, cultured, and almost divine. In training, a learner must find someone to imitate, then reproduce the chosen model. We learn by practicing, and especially by writing.

Antonius then discusses invention, summarizing stasis theory. Oratory consists in three means of persuasion: “proving that our contentions are true, winning over our audience, and inducing their minds to feel any emotion the case may demand (153-154). Antonius’ method is based on three procedures: 1) “to win people over,” which requires gentleness, 2) “to instruct them,” which requires intellectual acumen, and 3) “to stir their feelings,” which requires vigor (157). Invention involves intellectual ability, method, and diligence, and diligence is “the single virtue on which all over virtues depend” (162). Aristotle wrote about the topics or commonplaces from which arguments come, and Antonius then lists several: definition is useful if people don’t know what a thing is, and there are also topics like connected terms, genus, species, similarity, difference, opposite, attendant circumstances, consistencies, antecedents, contradictions, causes, results, greater, lesser, equal. [These remind me of Kenneth Burke’s innate forms of the mind in Counter-Statement. They are things all human beings have the capacity to recognize. Cf. The Metaphors We Live By and The Meaning of the Body.] But Antonius rushes through these things quickly so he can come to “more important matters” (170)—the character of the speaker and the emotions.

As for character, people are won over by a person’s accomplishments, prestige, and reputation. “Such things are easier to embellish if present than to fabricate if totally lacking, but at any rate, their effect is enhanced by a gentle tone of voice on the part of the orator, an expression on his face intimating restraint, and kindliness in the use of his words” (171). Also “generosity, mildness, dutifulness, gratitude, and of not being desirous or greedy. Actually all qualities typical of people who are decent and unassuming, not severe, not obstinate, not litigious, not harsh, really win goodwill, and alienate the audience from those who do not possess them” (171). Good speakers often speak quietly, and in a gentle, low-key manner. Character “often has more influence than the case itself. Moreover, so much is accomplished by speaking thoughtfully and with a certain taste, that the speech may be said to mold an image of the character of the orator. Employing thoughts of a certain kind and words of a certain kind, and adopting besides a delivery that is gentle and shows signs of flexibility, makes speakers appear as decent, as good in character—yes, as good men” (171-172). I have quoted these passages in full because they seem to me to be key.

Poets call speech “soul-bending, the queen of all the world” (172). The hearer cannot feel emotion that the orator does not show in “words, thoughts, voice, face” (173). We act out our own character, and loyalty, moral duty, and diligence are important. Orators should not use oratorical firebrands for insignificant matters. A speech should have humanity to it.

Caesar’s Excursus on Wit
Then comes Caesar’s excursus on wit. Wit can accomplish good. Joking shouldn’t detract from authority, though but laughter is power. It can refute some arguments that can’t otherwise be easily refuted. Joking must be used with restraint, however. The orator “must give proof of his own good manners and modesty by avoiding dishonorable words and obscene subjects” (188). The orator is distinguished from the buffoon because he takes into account the occasion and exercises restraint and moderation, as well as tries to achieve some purpose with them instead of just being funny. Topics for humor can be topics for seriousness, such as observations, resemblances, similarities in words, puns, and ambiguity.

But not everything that is funny is also witty. For example, clowns may be funny, but orators should not try to imitate clowns, nor should they be in any way “peevish, superstitious, suspicious, boastful, [or] stupid” (191). Orators also shouldn’t be obscene or distort their face, like some comedians do. Humor can also come from many topics or commonplaces such as fables, similarity, exaggeration, insinuation, irony, calling something disgraceful by an honorable name, censuring stupidity, the unexpected turn, friendly advice, pointing to something that seems to fit a person’s character, pointed remarks, impossible wishes, or the unexpected.

Antonius Concludes

After Caesar finishes his excursus on laughter and humor and wit, Antonius takes control again and begins talking about arrangement: choice and distribution of arguments, character, and emotion. Orators must be good judges of situations. The audience’s expectations should be met as quickly as possible, even in the first few words of the introduction. The speech should charm and attract the hearer right away, and the following narration should be pleasant, after which comes the proposition, the argumentation, and finally the conclusion. Antonius mentions the deliberative and laudatory genres, and concludes his speech by discussing memory: since understanding a thing’s order improves its retention in the mind, one way to remember things is to form mental images of a related object or place and use that object or place to recall things in the speech. The purpose of the art of speaking is not to create something from scratch what isn’t present in us, “but to rear and develop what has already been born and created within us” (220). Antonius concludes, and the morning’s discussion ends with everyone anticipating what will be Crassus’ afternoon discussion of style and delivery.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II  |  Book III

“M-T-Cicero” by original: Gunnar Bach Pedersen; for that version: Louis le Grand – Image:Thorvaldsen Cicero.jpg.
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Cicero’s Dialogue on the Ideal Orator: A Brief Summary of Book I

In a preface, Cicero writes to his brother Quintus about oratory: eloquence is important because it has such powerful influence on people, society, politics, and even humanity, but there are few really great speakers. True oratory is challenging because one must know so many things, such as how language is shaped and arranged, how emotions work in human beings, and what kind of a person befits a gentleman. Also, one must understand history and law and delivery, as well as have a good memory. In short, one must know practically everything (62). Hence the challenge of oratory. Then Cicero begins to tell a story.

Five men, Crassus, Cotta, Sulpicius, Scaevola, and Antonius are walking in Crassus’ garden when Scaevola turns to Crassus and says that this plane tree reminds him of the conversation between Socrates and Phaedrus in Plato’s Phaedrus. It is suggested that they have a similar conversation, and Crassus begins to extol eloquence and its power and greatness. This kind of praise and honor to eloquence, however, leads Scaevola to object by saying that sometimes eloquence has been harmful to people. Crassus replies by telling Scaevola that he heard these same arguments against eloquence on a visit to Athens, though ideally, eloquence is a good thing. Crassus continues to say that the orator does need philosophical knowledge if he is to speak well. The perfect orator can speak on any subject, even better than the specialists. He learns about life the same way he learns about a case from his clients. The true orator also knows all of the arts: the “entire topic of human life and conduct must be thoroughly mastered by the orator” (73).

Scaevola responds by saying that this ideal orator is unrealistic, and when Crassus says he’s only talking about the ideal, Scaevola says this ideal might go too far. Yet, prompted by Cotta, Sulpicius, and Scaevola, Crassus goes on to say that the most eloquent aren’t interested in many of the trivial handbooks that have been published (81). Natural ability is important, and, interestingly, the better a man speaks the more fearful he is about speaking because he knows that orators are judged harshly every time they open their mouths. “In an orator, . . . we have to demand the acumen of a dialectician, the thoughts of a philosopher, the words . . . of a poet, the memory of a jurisconsult, the voice of a tragic performer, and gestures close to those of a consummate actor” (86). Training and practice are also important, and the pen is the best teacher of all.

Then, when Cotta and Scaevola ask Crassus to develop more fully his picture of the ideal orator, Crassus emphasizes that the orator needs knowledge of law. The great orator they are discussing is a child of the gods: “The man we are searching for is, in the first place, the high priest of his art, an art whose great powers, it is true, were bestowed upon the human race by nature herself, but which is at the same time regarded as having had a god for its creator: the very faculty that is the hallmark of humanity appears not to have been produced through our own agency, but to have been presented to us from above by divine decree” (106). The orator is protected by his own title of speaker (and the assumption here is that he is an envoy who promotes peace).

Antonius objects, saying that Crassus has essentially defined a philosopher, not an orator. Philosophy is not necessary for an orator because philosophy is impractical. Legal knowledge is also not totally necessary, and, overall, Crassus’ demands are too high: an orator is one who “is able to speak in a manner that is suited to persuasion” (123) and who must constantly practice and work hard. And with those words of Antonius, the discussion ends for the day.

Links to Additional Brief Summaries of On the Ideal Orator (De Oratore)
Book I  |  Book II   |  Book III 

“M. Tullii Ciceronis De oratore liber” by Arundel MS 124, f. 1site
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –